Nationalism, Democracy, and the Arab Awakening

The revolutionary wave sweeping through the Middle East promises to topple sclerotic Arab regimes throughout the region, but there is a marked difference between, say, Egypt and Iran – and the difference is the nationalist factor.

In Egypt, the people rose up against a US-supported dictatorship which had ridden on their backs for 30 years. It’s interesting to note that the regime, in the latter stages of the revolt, resorted to dark hints that the protesters were being run by mysterious “foreign elements.” And, indeed, there was a foreign element that played a key role – I would argue the key role – in Egyptian politics, and had been doing so for the past 30 years, albeit not on the side of the pro-democracy forces: namely, the US government. Washington gave over $60 billion in mostly military aid to the regime of Hosni Mubarak, enabling him to stay in power far longer than he would have otherwise managed.

Not only that, but this massive outpouring of dollars effectively handed control of the nation’s economic life to the military, which now controls as much as 30 percent of Egypt’s gross domestic product. Internal US government communications, revealed by the invaluable WikiLeaks, show diplomats complaining about the Egyptian military’s resistance to economic liberalization, but Washington failed to comprehend how US policy entrenched the military high command as a major player in the Egyptian economy.

Mubarak’s appeal to nationalist sympathies failed because he, and not the protesters, was seen as the agent of a foreign power: namely, the United States. While economic and internal political factors almost certainly sparked the upsurge, it was nationalism – in part energized by resentment of the dictator’s American patrons – that managed to sustain it and ultimately carry it forward to victory. Protesters carried Egyptian flags, and appealed directly to the army as the protector of the nation against Mubarak. In Bahrain, too, the protesters carried their national flag, and made an appeal to the military – this latter with decidedly deadly results. In any case, however, the nationalistic sentiment exuded by the pro-democracy forces is a defining feature of the most successful uprisings – to date, Egypt and Bahrain – while in Iran (and, to some extent, Libya) the situation is more complex.

What complicates the picture in the case of Iran, for example, is outside pressure on the regime by the US, which reinforces actual grassroots support for the ruling elite and retards the growth of the opposition. The American and Israeli-led international campaign to isolate Iran on the grounds that it has no right to obtain nuclear power is opposed by both the mullahs and the “Green” movement that is trying to overthrow the dictatorship. If the Greens took power tomorrow, Iran’s nuclear program, such as it is, would remain in place – as would the hostility of the West and the sanctions that are slowly strangling ordinary people in that country.

In Iran, the elections in which the opposition was allowed to compete did not give the Green movement a victory. While some may allege that these elections were far from fair, this evaluation is not clear-cut enough to dislodge the legitimacy of the regime: and, in any event, it is undeniable that the hard-liners enjoy some level of popular support, or at least enough to forestall a massive upsurge such as threw Mubarak out of office in 18 days.

The Iranian regime can credibly point to a systematic campaign to undermine the country on the part of the Western powers, chiefly the United States – including a terrorist campaign waged by the US-backed Jundallah organization, a radical Sunni insurgency in Iranian Baluchistan that has launched vicious attacks on civilian targets. This cements popular support for the mullah-ocracy, which is seen as the only alternative to foreign domination and chaos.

The nationalist factor – or, one might say, the anti-American factor – operates in a similar manner in Libya, where longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi appeared in person at a pro-government rally in the capital city of Tripoli, which has been relatively calm and where the protest movement is apparently weakest. One cannot imagine Yemen’s “President” Ali Abdullah Saleh feeling confident enough to make an appearance in Sana’s main square, where he might well end up on the wrong end of a hangman’s noose.

Another US protectorate, the tiny East African nation of Djibouti, witnessed an amazing 20,000 protesters taking to the streets – a massive outpouring in a country with a population of under one million. Djibouti is the site of a major military base which is an important anchor of US operations in the region and beyond. In return, Washington has poured in aid and given the regime of “President” Ismail Guelleh political support, overlooking the Mubarak-like familial despotism that rules over this small but strategically important enclave. The President’s family has ruled the African city-state since independence from France in 1977.

In Syria, on the other hand, the Arab Awakening is less advanced: the Syrian Ba’athist regime of Bashar al-Assad has been in Washington’s sights since the Bush era, and here again the nationalist factor plays an important role. Of course, Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad, once decimated a city of some 60,000, slaughtering most of the inhabitants, when the Muslim Brotherhood launched a revolt, and the memory of this may deter potential rebels: but that kind of brutality is less of a restraining factor these days, as we have seen in Bahrain, Yemen, and Libya, where security forces are firing directly into crowds – and still the ranks of protesters continue to grow.

The US government poses as the international champion of democracy and liberty, but the objective real-world consequences of its foreign policy of global intervention effectively hold back progress in this direction. It is no accident that the revolutions in Iran, Libya, and Syria (where only a few hundred have so far turned out for Egypt-inspired protests) are meeting substantial resistance, while in the US protectorates – Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Jordan, Djibouti – the protests are more successful.

Unless the administration is willing to take advice from the more embittered neocons, Glenn Beck, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who rail that Mubarak was “betrayed” by the West, this disparity points to the only rational response to the Awakening by the US: Washington must get out of the way. Amid calls from many liberals and some neocons to endorse the democratic movements, and the opposite advice from the Beckians, the US government must resist the temptation to meddle in any manner whatsoever – and this includes pumping in money and resources to handpicked “democratic” parties and organizations via USAID and the National Endowment for Democracy. Such efforts are bound to boomerang, just as our previous support to the reigning dictators did.

Our national interests were never served by supporting brutal kleptocrats like Mubarak, and his cousins across the region: nor are they being served by “democracy promotion,” either. The Founders foresaw that the American example would inspire efforts to achieve liberty beyond our shores, and one of them, John Quincy Adams, had this advice to give:

“Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”

UPDATE: As events in Libya continue to race forward, I think my initial analysis is roughly accurate: while the Eastern provinces have rid themselves of Gadhafi, in Tripoli pro-government mobs are taking to the streets, and the dictator and his equally daffy son seem to be digging in for a protracted conflict. I see the son is taking his clues from Glenn Beck and David Horowitz, babbling about how the rebels are trying to restore the "Caliphate" or "Emirate." I didn’t know they got Fox News in Libya, but I guess being the son of a dictator affords one certain privileges.

NOTES IN THE MARGIN’s Spring fundraising drive is in full swing, and, in spite of a slow start, seems to have picked up a bit. But the truth of the matter is that it hasn’t picked up enough. If we continue to receive contributions at the current rate, we’ll be well short of the sum – $100,000 – we need to continue at our current level. This is a disaster in the making.

It’s a disaster because, for the first time, we are beginning to take a more activist orientation and are making substantial inroads. A good example is our recent intervention at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), where we had a literature table –- and where a large number of anti-war libertarians and conservatives managed to make their presence felt. Both Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney were greeted by activists wearing buttons and stickers with cries of “war criminal!” and “Where’s Osama bin Laden?!” That’s how we demoralize the enemy and make him afraid – even in what he regards as his own lair.

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Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].